“In case you marry a girl who can’t,” she explains with a brief eye roll. “Nobody teaches them this anymore.”
I am 12 in the summer of 1988, and she and I are in the kitchen, hunched side by side over our metallic gray covered ironing board. She has heated her beige Sunbeam Select-O-Steam to the “cotton” setting, and it is gurgling steam in anticipation of the job ahead. One of my stepfather’s church shirts—white, collared, single breast pocket—is facedown on the soft-but-shiny angled plank before us.
She sprays a light mist of canned starch before saying, “You start with the yoke.” Pressing the broad strip of cloth across the top of the shirt’s back with the iron, she makes it smooth and seemingly whiter. “Now you,” she adds. I run the iron over the same spot, and some of the fabric catches beneath it. “Cat faces,” she calls them with a frown—those ugly folds in an otherwise perfectly pressed piece of laundry.
I go over the wrinkled spot more carefully another time and undo the damage. Sleeves and collar, panels front and back are all treated to my mother’s same diligent spray-and-spread methodology. “Your Aunt Peggy always uses dip starch,” she notes, as if I’ll know what that means. “The old-fashioned liquid kind.” Maybe that’s a little clearer. I have a picture in my mind, anyway.
Twenty-five years later, I stand daily in my own kitchen with my work shirt for the day ahead spread before me. I do not use my mother’s method. I start instead with the sleeves, then flip it hastily, steaming first the front, then the back. A quick run over the collar is followed by extra attention to the pocket, if there is one. If there’s a can of starch, I’ll use it. If not, no worries. As long as the wrinkles are out, I’m happy. I guess it’s a man thing, this swift technique, and Mom would no doubt scowl at it.
It’s not that I married “a girl who can’t,” but rather, it’s become a secret obsession of mine—getting a shirt perfectly smooth before a day’s tasks. Even in the era of “iron-free” and “wrinkle resistant,” I insist on my clothes my way. And that way is ironed. As I perform what my mother would term “a lick and a promise” on blue Oxford cloth, I think of her lesson in an older, wiser country kitchen. The whole world may become unkempt, but because of Mom’s teaching, what I wear will always be a point of order.